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Child detention – the answer is justice, not tougher measures

Pilot scheme giving families a fortnight to leave the UK “voluntarily” has not been successful so fa

A pilot scheme aimed at ending child detention in the UK through voluntary deportation has not had much success so far, according to a report by the BBC.

The scheme involves giving families with children two weeks to leave the country "voluntarily", with leeway for officials to give orders for a family to leave on a specific day.

In the pilot, 113 families in the north-west of England and London were invited to special family conferences at which they are told that they had to make arrangements to leave.

Documents seen by the BBC show that just one family has so far been successfully removed voluntarily. Two families accepted resettlement packages, and another two that refused to comply were taken into detention and subsequently deported.

It will be easy for the populist right to argue that the apparently low rate of removal indicates that the scheme is a failure and there is no effective alternative to detention.

However, the numbers in the document in fact tell a different story. Just three families – and remember this is out of a total of 113 – went on the run or cut contact with officials. Most of the others used their freedom to go through the courts or the appeals system to fight their removal legally.

The findings highlight a problem with the asylum system that goes beyond questions of detention: the vast majority of people seeking asylum are not given anything resembling a fair hearing. A substantial proportion of asylum cases that are rejected the first time round are won on appeal, causing not only trauma to the person in question, but unnecessary cost to the taxpayer.

This existing problem is set to deteriorate further, thanks to fast-tracked asylum applications, cuts to legal aid which have already made it difficult to find a lawyer to take on appeal cases in many areas, and these quick-turnaround deportations.

In this context, it seems brutal that officials are proposing tougher measures (outlined in the same document), such as "ensured return", and "non-detained" accommodation near airports, which frankly sound rather like deportation and detention by different names. Other suggested tactics include electronic tagging and arresting one parent in order to force other family members to board a flight (how's that for "moral outrage", Nick Clegg?)

The commitment to end child detention is hollow if it is simply replaced with similarly punitive and non-humane methods. According to the Children's Society, evidence from abroad shows that families leave voluntarily if they feel they have had a fair hearing.

The answer is not imprisonment, or rushed removals to potentially dangerous situations, but an asylum process that, from start to finish, adheres to basic standards of justice.